Upholding the Search for Truth

Getting the truth into circulation when the deck is stacked against you is quite a challenge. In an age when corporate media have come to dominate the journalism landscape, it’s difficult to make inroads for organizations that don’t have ample resources or that don’t fit the expected mold. But, with determination, confidence and a staunch desire to succeed at delivering the truth, it may be possible to achieve a significant breakthrough, as depicted in the new Oscar-nominated Indian documentary, “Writing with Fire” (web site, trailer).

Set in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, “Writing with Fire” profiles Khabar Lahariya (KL) (“Waves of News”), an independent news organization launched by a group of aspiring journalists in 2002. What distinguishes KL is the fact that it’s run entirely by women who come from the Dalit caste, often referred to as “the untouchables.” And, as a region that has many “media dark” areas, it’s often difficult for news to become disseminated to uninformed masses. What’s more, as a region known for its widespread corruption, its tolerance of violence and discrimination against women, and its strict adherence to maintenance of India’s rigid caste system, many Uttar Pradesh locals have trouble learning about what’s unfolding in their area. With conditions like these and a dearth of educational opportunities, it’s easy to keep the populace in the dark – just what those in officialdom want.

The all-female staff of the independent Indian news organization Khabar Lahariya (KL) (“Waves of News”) meets regularly under the guidance of chief reporter Meera Devi (second from right) to discuss story ideas, reporting technologies and other matters as seen in the new Oscar-nominated documentary, “Writing with Fire.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

In telling KL’s story, filmmakers Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas enter the picture 15 years after the organization’s founding at a time when it was transitioning from a print outlet to an electronic news source to more widely disperse its output. With its team of 28 semi-literate reporters, the news staff was having to learn how to use a new technology (cell phones), a challenge given that many of them don’t understand the English operating instructions and don’t even have electricity in their homes. However, considering how far the team of journalists had come from their humble beginnings (and in the face of an array of challenges), they forged ahead with this change with the same degree of commitment and dedication that had gotten them to this point.

And what a level of success KL had attained. In a media world dominated by moneyed corporations and men with impressive educational pedigrees, the team of comparative amateurs diligently moved forward in making a name for themselves. What began as a venture that many believed was destined to fail, the organization has blossomed into a widely followed media outlet, with over 150 million viewers of its YouTube channel. The journalists have also demonstrated their perseverance in chasing down their stories, frequently at significant personal risk, both as women specifically targeted because of their gender and in having to obtain information from seedy, unreliable and dangerous sources. In carrying out this task, the women of KL have tracked down stories related to such topics as victimization against women, illegal mining, mob activity, corrupt and negligent government practices, insufficient infrastructure planning and programs, and the rise of right-wing political fundamentalist movements. At the same time, by drawing attention to these matters, KL has often helped to spread awareness of these issues and even spur on much-needed reforms.

KL’s story is personalized by focusing on three of its staff members. Chief among them is 32-year-old Meera Devi, the organization’s tireless principal reporter, who fought against relentless discrimination and a conservative culture to study journalism and become a professional practitioner. Meera’s feisty 20-year-old protégé, Suneeta Prajapati, who grew up as a child laborer in an illegal mine, has emerged as the only female crime reporter in the region, focusing much of her investigative efforts on the region’s lucrative illegal mining businesses and the corrupt nexus between the mafia and politicians. Then there are novices like Shyamkali Devi, who is learning the ropes while on the job, but it’s an undertaking that doesn’t deter her, carrying on despite the challenges to get the story out.

Chief reporter Meera Devi (left) of the all-female independent Indian news organization Khabar Lahariya (KL) (“Waves of News”) instructs novice journalist Shyamkali Devi (right) in the operation of a cell phone as the news outlet transitions from print to electronic reporting as seen in the new Oscar-nominated documentary, “Writing with Fire,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

The personal side of this story also delves into the impact that this work has on the reporters when they’re off the clock (if such a thing actually exists for them). Their dedication has had an influence on their home lives, as Meera’s family members make clear. It has also prompted hard choices, such as those faced by Suneeta, who is conflicted about remaining devoted to her professional commitments and living up to the traditional marriage obligations expected of her. But, given their obvious love of this work, it’s hard to imagine any of these journalists walking away from their vocation, especially given how far they’ve come.

Considering the success KL has achieved, it’s positioned to become a major news source in India at large, not just in Uttar Pradesh. Having risen from a local to a regional media outlet, KL is now poised to become a national player. It has even begun to be recognized outside of India, a reputation that’s likely to grow with the release of this film. That could prove to be especially important in light of the changing sociopolitical environment within India, a nation that’s seeing the rise of religious authoritarianism and the impact it’s having on the country’s secular life. With comparable movements taking place in other nations around the world, KL’s coverage of this phenomenon within its homeland could play an important role in keeping citizens elsewhere informed about this potentially significant (and growing) global development.

In the meantime, as this documentary illustrates, the Dalit women of KL can take a well-deserved bow for what they’ve accomplished. In an age when journalism has become increasingly suspect, unreliable and untrustworthy, it’s comforting to know that there are still committed media organizations out there devoted to reporting with honesty, integrity and a burning desire to uncover the truth. And it’s heartening to see that some of the most important work in this area is coming from unlikely sources such as this. KL has set an inspirational example for others to follow at a time when it’s truly needed.

In many ways, the women of KL embody qualities like persistence and fortitude, providing a noble and uplifting model for all of us to follow. And they reached that point through their own initiative – not just their actions, but also their attitudes and outlooks, the driving forces that have kept them going when others may have readily surrendered. This illustrates the power behind our beliefs, the foundation of our existence. And, considering what they’ve achieved, those are some powerful beliefs at work.

Taking their work directly to the people is a hallmark reporting practice for the all-female reporting staff of the independent Indian news organization Khabar Lahariya (KL) (“Waves of News”) as profiled in the new documentary feature from the directing duo of Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, “Writing with Fire.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

To a great degree, the beliefs of the women of KL are rooted in the notion of faith, not of a religious nature, but of a firmly established conviction in themselves and what they’re capable of accomplishing. It’s a quality that permeates what they do, driving their efforts and cementing the attributes that characterize them. Their commitment to objectivity and their ability to authentically follow through on that promise, for example, are apparent in how they cover the news, a hallmark of their signature reporting style. It’s a refreshing approach that has won over many devoted followers who have tired of the bald-faced editorializing that has come to typify much of mainstream journalism and to undermine its credibility. And, based on these results, the women clearly have faith in their ability to carry out their objectives.

The foregoing thus spotlights the inherent honesty and integrity these journalists bring to their work, another core belief behind their efforts. The presence of these attributes is crucial to the realization of our manifestation ventures, no matter what they may be, given that they are reflective of our true selves and the belief input behind these efforts. Indeed, the more we tap into those qualities, the greater our chances of successfully fulfilling our intents, with results that faithfully emulate the qualities incorporated into them, an experience that the women of KL can attest to firsthand.

KL has employed a truly bold and courageous approach in carrying out this mission. Considering the conditions under which these journalists have had to operate, they have had to deal with limitations and dangers that could have easily stopped them in their tracks, but they refused to give up. They devised creative solutions and actively faced their fears, galvanizing them in their efforts to attain their goals. And, for their efforts, they have produced something viable and truly admirable.

The bottom line in this is that the staff of KL has committed itself to its goal. Even though the organization’s initial output is now but a mere shadow of what it yields today, the growth of this media outlet’s coverage and audience reflects the determined effort that went into generating those results. The team’s belief in commitment is undeniably potent, and the magnitude of that attribute is apparent in what has resulted, a powerful creation that has left an indelible mark on the field of journalism and Indian society.

Meeting with politicians (right) has become an important new focus for the all-female reporting staff of the independent Indian news organization Khabar Lahariya (KL) (“Waves of News”) as depicted in the new Oscar-nominated documentary feature from the directing duo of Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, “Writing with Fire,” now available for streaming online. Photo by Black Ticket Films, courtesy of The Sundance Institute.

Directors Ghosh and Thomas have compiled an engaging, multifaceted, up-close look at this group of truth seekers in their documentary feature debut. In chronicling this story, the filmmakers often placed their own lives in jeopardy, frequently venturing into dangerous situations, conditions where the intrepid reporters’ work placed them in potentially grave peril. The result is a captivating watch in which viewers witness a compelling, no-holds-barred, boots-on-the-ground real-life story unfold, with no advance clue as to how things will ultimately turn out. Consequently, prospective audience members should be aware that some footage may be difficult for sensitive viewers. Also, viewers may experience some sound quality issues in streaming this release from some online sources (when I watched it, background sounds and the film’s score came through loud and clear, but the dialogue was problematic; thank goodness for subtitles). These considerations aside, however, “Writing with Fire” is exactly what its title says it is – a passionate, inspiring story about a group of truth seekers who have refused to give up at a time when it’s become all too easy for many of us to do so. Good for them – and, ultimately, for us.

This Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature has played at film festivals and in limited theatrical release and as part of the PBS documentary series Independent Lens. The picture has since been made available for streaming online on a variety of platforms.

Over time, David and Goliath stories like this have become a movie industry staple, both in narrative and documentary film genres. However, every so often, one comes along that truly stands out for its distinguishing attributes, and “Writing with Fire” is one such example. In an age where truth has regrettably become increasingly compromised, we need virtuous champions like the women of KL to carry on the tradition of accurate, reliable reporting, because, if we fail to support and preserve resources like this, we may all end up paying the price.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

New Movies on Frankiesense & More 

Join guest host Ishita Sharma and yours truly for the April movie review edition of Frankiesense & More, beginning Thursday April 28. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

And the Winners Are… 

I’m thrilled to announce that my Oscar prediction scorecard this year came up perfectly! This is the first time in a number of years where that has been the case, but I’m thankful that I finally got everything right (even if I didn’t completely agree with the results). Find out more by reading “Perfect Predictions!”, available by clicking here.

Questions of Perspective


Is it possible to see the “same” situation in two different ways? That’s an age-old question that’s been debated for eons by philosophers, theologians and even quibbling parents, each claiming that their view was “right.” But who’s to say that anyone is “wrong” in these quarrels? Maybe everyone is “right” about what they perceive, each driven by his or her individual beliefs. It’s a question brought up once again, this time in an unlikely context, as seen in the intriguing new Brazilian sci-fi offering, “The Pink Cloud” (“A Nuvem Rosa”) (web site, trailer).

What if we were to face circumstances where an outside danger was forcing us to stay inside, cooped up in isolation for a prolonged period? Wouldn’t it be interesting to speculate about what might happen as a result of that? And how might we view it?

Hey wait – we’ve already done that.

Nevertheless, it’s intriguing to see how closely reality paralleled the ideas raised in this piece of cinematic speculative fiction, which was written in 2017 and filmed in 2019, before the COVID pandemic began. The timing of its release in 2021 couldn’t have been more ironic and synchronistic. It certainly gave the picture’s marketing people something unexpectedly relevant to work with, despite claims that any similarities between the film and actual events were purely coincidental.

It may be the dawn of a new day, but not one that the world will ultimately welcome as a toxic environmental hazard looms over the horizon in the prophetic new sci-fi release, “The Pink Cloud” (“A Nuvem Rosa”). Photo courtesy of Prana Filmes.

In this story, a mysterious pink cloud suddenly begins appearing around the world. Despite its pastel beauty, it’s deadly, apparently containing toxic gases that kill quickly, within moments of exposure. Because of this, everyone is hurriedly corralled indoors, forced to either shelter in place or find the nearest available enclosed space, decisions to which little thought is given in light of the situation’s pressing immediacy. Many are trapped in places like supermarkets, often among strangers, with no idea how long they’ll be confined. One thing is for certain, though: Those who take these hasty steps to secure themselves are guaranteed to survive (at least initially) as chilling televised reports reveal just how fast one can succumb to the effects of the cloud.

The nature of the cloud and its projected duration are a complete mystery. However, it soon becomes apparent that it has remarkable persistence, and everyone must begin making preparations for these conditions for the long term. And this is true both for survival provisions as well as the relationships among those who suddenly find themselves sequestered with one another, some of whom may have little familiarity with their new domestic companions.

Such is the case with Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça), who met only the night before the cloud’s appearance. They attended a club, where they connected and struck up an attraction that led to a one-night stand at the home of Giovana’s mother. When morning came, however, as they leisurely chilled in hammocks on the house’s balcony, they heard warning sirens blare with announcements advising everyone to move indoors as quickly as possible. And, in no time, the virtual strangers found themselves in close quarters for an unknown duration.

So what does one do under conditions like this? Well, considering that going outdoors would mean a death sentence, staying inside is the only viable option for anyone who doesn’t have a suicidal death wish. After taking an inventory of supplies and attending to other basic considerations, Giovana and Yago make video calls to check in with loved ones. Giovana calls her younger sister, Júlia (Helena Becker), who is attending a birthday party, and one of her friends, Sara (Kaya Rodrigues), who is home alone after her partner stepped out to visit a nearby bakery. Yago, meanwhile, calls his aging father, Rui (Girley Brasil Paes), who suffers from memory-related issues and is under the supervision of a live-in caretaker. They’re both concerned about the well-being of their family and friends, but, for now, keeping in touch is about all they can realistically do.

And so, after dealing with these initial adjustments to their routine, Giovana and Yago begin settling in to their new normal, unsure of what shape that will ultimately take. They attempt to address the issues that now present themselves, such as figuring out what course their relationship will take. Given how they met, it’s obvious there’s some degree of attraction between them, but is it enough to sustain them going forward, or were they just running on a surplus of hormones at the time? Do they share common goals for the future, or are they on different, potentially irreconcilable paths? Indeed, can they make this work?

Unwittingly trapped together in the wake of a one-night stand, virtual strangers Giovana (Renata de Lélis, left) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça, right) must learn how to make a new life together in director Iuli Gerbase’s debut feature, “The Pink Cloud” (“A Nuvem Rosa”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Prana Filmes.

Then there’s the question of grappling with long-term isolation and all of the attendant considerations that come with it, such as depression and other emotional issues. How well can each of them cope with being stuck within a limited number of walls? Granted they’re fortunate to be in Giovana’s mother’s well-appointed home, which offers an array of amenities and distractions, but will they be enough for the long term? And how well will the couple be able to cope with not having access to the big beautiful world just outside their windows, a view that ever tempts them to venture outdoors despite the known perils associated with that?

As the years pass and the relationship becomes more solidified, even more profound questions enter the picture, such as the possibility of having children. What if Giovana and Yago aren’t on the same page about this? But what if children arrive anyway? Then what? How will the presence of another being in the household affect the balance of things? And what would children bring to the table, especially since they might have to spend their entire lives confined indoors?

These are among the issues that Giovana and Yago must face. As daunting as those who lived through the pandemic came to view their circumstances, they pale in comparison to what those in the world of the pink cloud must wrestle with. The prospect of having to endure such conditions for years is probably unfathomable to most of us, but that’s what the residents of this new existence are saddled with, and we can’t help but wonder how they’ll manage. This truly becomes a case of life being what we make it. But the big question here is, what will they create?

The closer one looks at this story, the more one sees that there’s much more going on than simply protecting oneself from a deadly threat. But, for the protagonists, understanding that may take some doing, including having to endure the circumstances for a time to realize what’s actually transpiring. And, on this point, the narrative here parallels what has happened in real life even more than what one might initially think.

In shaping their new lives together, Giovana and Yago draw on their beliefs in manifesting their own versions of what constitutes their new normal. And, considering that the protagonists are in many ways starting with a blank slate, they can aim for whatever they want, depending on whatever beliefs they have in place.

Much of the time, many of us tend to look upon this process in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, examining the manifestation of each of the components that make up the reality we experience. But, in this case, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Giovana and Yago are essentially rebuilding the totality of their existence, including the overarching qualities that characterize it. In that sense, then, they’re each actually materializing a template upon which all of their individual manifestations rest. Their templates are based on the perspectives they each embrace for their new reality, outlooks that are shaped by amalgamations of various beliefs, which, in turn, provide an underlying pattern for the creation of their new reality.

Ever tempted by an enticing outside world that would unfortunately result in virtually instant death, long-sequestered Giovana (Renata de Lélis) longs for an end to her protracted captivity in “The Pink Cloud” (“A Nuvem Rosa”). Photo courtesy of Prana Filmes.

Cryptic though that may sound, we can actually look at our own experience to see how it’s reflected in the narrative of this film. Think of how many different ways life has changed as a result of the COVID pandemic. Remote working, for example, has become far more widely employed and accepted than previously. Breadwinners have become much more attuned to creating better work/life balances than in pre-pandemic times. Cocooning has replaced going out as a way of life for many individuals who were once social butterflies. The implementation of these changes wasn’t aggressively sought when they weren’t seen as necessary, but, when conditions changed, individuals embraced them, and their adoption resulted from wide-ranging changes in perspective underlying them (i.e., the new template).

As the story in “The Pink Cloud” plays out, we see the same happening to Giovana and Yago. After addressing basic needs like survival, through which they become more proficient as creative problem-solvers and learn how to overcome fears and limitations, they begin to assess what they want out of life as they settle in to their new routines. They each need to decide how they want to characterize them, figuring out which qualities they want to dominate. And, even though they’re in this situation together, they each have their own views of what they want, which means that they don’t necessarily share the same prevailing outlooks.

When an event like this occurs, there’s a fundamental sense of loss associated with it. The key to adapting, however, depends on how we see it. In many ways, this comes down to the question, is the glass half empty or half full? The half empty analogy no doubt arises from things like the inability to go outside and to interact with other people. It’s disappointing, to be sure, especially for those who have become accustomed to such activities. On the other hand, there’s the half full perspective, which rests on gratitude for things like one’s health, safety and continued existence in light of the prevailing circumstances. This view represents a basic appreciation for what one has, not what one lacks.

In light of what Giovana and Yago are up against, which of these perspectives is likely to offer a better chance of coping with the situation at hand? This is a lesson for them, just as it was for many of us with the onset of the COVID pandemic. The scenario thus operates as a refresher on the value of gratitude and appreciation, concepts that many of us lost sight of in a world that had grown selfishly obsessed with the notion of satisfaction on demand. When we have whatever we want, whenever we want it, we can grow unappreciative of what we do have while lamenting that which we don’t have (and that we can probably get along without just fine). Sometimes, though, it takes conditions like this to rediscover that lost awareness, and this film’s narrative provides us with a poignant reminder.

A key to grasping the foregoing rests with an ability to know when to let go, a point driven home at multiple times and in multiple ways during the film. Holding on when letting go would suit us better can be a hard choice, one that’s difficult to embrace palatable beliefs about. This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to holding out hope for being able to return outdoors, but there are even more painful choices to be considered. This becomes apparent, for example, when Giovana and Yago must come to terms with their level of ongoing contact with Júlia, Sara and Rui. Indeed, what’s one realistically to do when there’s essentially nothing to be done? How will one’s perspective be affected when false hope is allowed to continue to hold sway, particularly in situations where doing so accomplishes nothing? And, in turn, what impact would this have on one’s resulting reality?

Coping with an unexpected new normal, Yago (Eduardo Mendonça) looks for meaning in his drastically changed circumstances in “The Pink Cloud” (“A Nuvem Rosa”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Prana Filmes.

In these regards, “The Pink Cloud” is more than an intriguing work of science fiction or a remarkably prescient depiction of recent everyday life. It delivers thoughtful insights on the nature and qualities of existence. It helps us see what makes life worth living, including under conditions of great duress. And it helps us to decide how we wish to approach it – or whether we even want to do so.

Director Iuli Gerbase is off to a great start in this debut feature. This Brazilian offering handily surpasses its sci-fi roots in its exploration of a host of philosophical, metaphysical and moral issues, such as acceptance of our circumstances, knowing when to let go and developing appreciation for what we have, even in the absence of what we’ve lost. Its gorgeous cinematography and pastel-dominated art direction give the film an ironically loving look, one that comes in stark contrast to the perpetually deadly threat that awaits on the other side of the windows. Admittedly, the film suffers from occasional pacing issues (especially in the second half), as well as some repetitiveness in certain aspects of the screenplay/narrative. Nevertheless, this release has much to say, not only about what we’ve experienced, but also in terms of what we should consider taking away from it – a message that we must remember was crafted before our recent circumstances materialized. The film is available for streaming online.

In watching this film, one might wonder how something so beautiful as the pink cloud could be quite so menacing. We’ve all no doubt witnessed gorgeous sunrises and sunsets where the skies have been filled with wisps in such gorgeous hues, and, through these experiences, we’ve never questioned the beauty that Nature has sent our way. So why should this instance be any different? Well, in a way, perhaps it’s not; perhaps the beauty here lies in the message accompanying this phenomenon, one intended to nudge us into a greater sense of appreciation and gratitude. It may be delivered in a seemingly backhanded way, but it’s nevertheless a case of the Universe practicing tough love for us, behaving as if it’s a stern parent trying to impress a message upon us that we’ve been unable or unwilling to grasp but that we truly need to hear. We should be grateful for that in and of itself. But, if nothing else, we can only hope that we have the awareness to see the wisdom that’s being imparted – and to make it the priority in our lives that it truly deserves to be.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

The Courageous Pursuit of a Just Cause

When we’re past what we think of as the top of our game, we may grow despondent, disillusioned and withdrawn, perhaps believing that we’ll never get back what we’ve lost. It can be a frustrating and depressing time, one that leaves us sorely wanting. Can the redemption we seek be attained, or is it really too late? That’s the question posed in the new fact-based historical drama, “Minamata” (web site, trailer).

In 1971, acclaimed photojournalist W. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp) had fallen on hard times both professionally and personally. Smith established himself through his coverage of the Pacific theater during World War II, capturing images of the battles of Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, which were featured in LIFE magazine. Through this work and other assignments, he made a name for himself as the father of the modern photo essay, widely recognized as one of the pre-eminent practitioners in the business.

In the years after the war, though, Smith’s fortunes began to fade. As a free-lance photographer, many of his projects didn’t pay off as planned (despite the critical acclaim many of them received). He became financially strapped, living under destitute conditions in a run-down New York apartment and even selling some of his equipment to raise cash. He had become estranged from his family, having not spoken with his children in years. He grew increasingly dependent on alcohol and amphetamines, putting a severe strain on his health and making him notoriously unreliable. And he developed a reputation for being difficult to work with, prompting many onetime collaborators, like LIFE magazine editor Bob Hayes (a pseudonym created for the movie) (Bill Nighy), to avoid new assignments with him. For all practical purposes, at age 52, Smith had come to see himself as washed up with virtually no future and little hope for redemption.

Down-on-his-luck photojournalist W. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp) faces a bleak future when his life falls apart, but redemption could be just around the corner, as seen in the new fact-based historical drama, “Minamata.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

That changed, however, when he took on a job with Fuji Film, a project that brought him into contact with translator Aileen Mioko (Minami Hinase), who used her position as a springboard to make contact with the photographer. She knew of his reputation for creating works that would get noticed and hoped that she could convince him to accept a project in need of the kind of attention he could generate through his photos. Although initially resentful of having been railroaded, Smith nevertheless was willing to give a listen to her proposal. And, after she explained what she was after, it completely turned him around.

Aileen told Smith about the plight of the Japanese fishing village of Minamata, where the residents had been systematically poisoned for at least 15 years by the Chisso Corporation’s practice of dumping mercury into the waters surrounding the community. The result was widespread illness among the locals – some of whom had been sickened while still in the womb – with a condition characterized by multiple symptoms that had come to be known as “Minamata disease.” Yet, despite how prevalent the illness had become, few outside of Minamata knew anything about it. Media coverage had been scant, and Chisso, as the responsible but powerfully influential party in this situation, had managed to successfully keep the story under wraps.

If circumstances were ever going to change, the world had to hear about this unspeakable atrocity, and Aileen believed Smith was just the person to tell this story. And, to that end, she made a convincing enough case to win over his support. Smith pitched Hayes about covering the story for LIFE, which, like the photographer, was itself fighting for survival at the time. And, before long, Smith was on his way to Japan.

Smith’s return to the Far East came with mixed feelings in light of his war experience. He saw tremendous carnage during his years on the battlefront, and he had been severely injured at one point. However, he knew the Minamata incident was a story that had to be told, and so he managed to set aside his painful memories as best he could to take on this new assignment, one that could well be his last and one that just might give him that shot at redemption that he so desperately sought.

Once in Minamata, Smith had an opportunity to see the impact of the illness firsthand. One of his first experiences was meeting the Matsumura family, through whom he witnessed the heart-wrenching but loving care provided by parents Masako (Akiko Iwase) and Tatsuo (Tadanobu Asano) in tending to their severely afflicted daughter, Akiko (Kogarashi Wakasugi), who had been affected by the disease while her mother was pregnant. It nearly tore up the gruff, hard-nosed journalist, but it also affirmed his conviction to get the story out. If someone as jaded and cynical as Smith could have his head turned, then it was obvious morality wasn’t dead. Indeed, the world needed to know, and those responsible needed to pay.

Acclaimed photojournalist W. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp, left) meets with LIFE magazine editor Bob Hayes (Bill Nighy, right) to discuss an assignment that could change both of their fortunes as seen in director Andrew Levitas’s latest, “Minamata,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Subsequently, Smith met some of the activists struggling to raise awareness, including the initiative’s outspoken, charismatic leader, Mitsuo Yamazaki (Hiroyuki Sanada). He also met an advocate who was a fellow photographer, Kiyoshi (Ryô Kase), who was experiencing the first stages of Minamata disease. Kiyoshi somehow managed to control the characteristic shaking associated with the illness whenever he snapped a picture, demonstrating his firm resolve for making sure this story was told – and inspiring Smith even more.

On the flip side, Smith also met Junichi Nojima (Jun Kunimura), president of Chisso. Drawing upon his polished professional demeanor (and backed by the muscle of a pair of beefy body guards), Nojima attempted to whitewash the circumstances, painting a glowing picture of all the good his company was doing and repeatedly emphasizing how infinitesimally small the pollutant discharges were. He even went so far as to offer Smith a hefty bribe to walk away from the story. Yet, no matter how hard he tried to sway Smith’s opinion, he failed at every turn.

As Smith and his colleagues persisted and continued to turn up the heat, their task grew ever more difficult. They were bombarded by the same kinds of manipulative and strong arm tactics that Chisso had tried to use in silencing Minamata residents whenever they tried to press their case with the corporation or to make their plight more widely known. And, admittedly, the corporation had some success in their efforts, wearing down the townsfolk and Smith to the point where they had to consider whether the effort was still worth it. But, for Smith’s part, he had promises to keep – to Aileen, to the residents of Minamata, to Bob Hayes, and, most of all, to himself. He had to keep going – and so he did.

Making up for past missteps is often an ambitious, heartfelt goal, one that we feel compelled to address, even if we’re not sure how or whether our efforts will measure up. We may end up placing so much pressure on ourselves that we feel paralyzed or throw in the towel. But, with such feelings hanging over us, we may never feel completely satisfied, no matter which course we pursue. If we’re ever to get off the dime, we need the right spark to bring us back to life and set us on a course where restitution in some form or another is possible.

These are the circumstances under which we see Smith wallowing as the film opens. He seems to want to make amends for his past, but he often feels hopeless, and, with the clock ticking, he’s not sure he’ll be able to address this matter within the time frame he has left. But, just as he’s about to give up hope, something unexpected and miraculous drops in his lap, providing him with an opportunity to make things right. He may not be able to completely erase the mistakes of his past, but he can at least take steps that enable him to feel fulfilled and worthy, an accomplishment brought to life by his own acts and deeds.

Photojournalist W. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp, second from left) and translator Aileen Mioko (Minami Hinase, second from right) seek to document the dangerous, disease-causing pollution of the waters by a powerful corporation off the coast of a Japanese fishing village in the new historical drama, “Minamata.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

More importantly, though, Smith wrought this achievement as a result of his thoughts, beliefs and intents, the building blocks involved in manifesting the reality we experience. By drawing this opportunity to him, Smith opened a door to the redemption he had been seeking for some time, and, as this story shows, he pounced on it.

The success Smith attained came about for various reasons. For starters, Smith was being faithful to his true self. Even though he often appears to be an embittered, surly curmudgeon who has engaged in some questionable behavior throughout his life, he nevertheless has a strong moral core, genuinely concerned with matters of right and wrong and seeing justice served. This mindset played a significant role throughout his career, including in the subjects he chose to document through his work. So, when the Minamata story crossed his radar, he jumped at the chance to tackle it, even stirring up considerable enthusiasm among the LIFE magazine editorial staff at a time when the publication’s viability needed a hefty adrenaline shot to bolster its flagging fortunes.

In pursuing this endeavor, Smith had some hurdles to overcome, particularly in the areas of fear and limitation. He had his share of personal demons to address, too, some related to his own actions and some tied to his past experiences in Japan. He also faced more challenges once on assignment, including the manipulative and intimidating tactics employed by Chisso. But, if Smith were to succeed at this undertaking, he had to get past these obstacles, embracing beliefs that enabled him to live courageously in the pursuit of this just cause.

As someone who was accustomed to working solo, he needed to realize that this was likely no longer possible at this point in his career. He had to forge alliances with collaborators who could help him complete the task at hand. Fortunately, he was able to find colleagues who could assist him in gathering valuable evidence, opening doors to significant leads and bringing the truth to light, painting a more complete picture of the overall scenario. This effort thus represented a prime example of co-creation at work, where pooled input led to an outcome that proved even more illuminating than expected.

When assessing the role Smith played in this situation, it’s as if it were meant to be. As unlikely as that might have appeared at the start of this tale, Smith was the right person for the job. Considering the impact he had always had with his work and given what this story needed to make the public more aware of it, this was the perfect match between talent and need. One could call it destiny, putting forth his best, truest self for his own betterment and those around him. The assignment served Smith’s professional and personal needs while bringing this health and environmental disaster to light. And, even though Minamata was the last project Smith undertook, it provided him with a heroic way to round out his career. We should all go out on such a high note.

Photojournalist W. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp, right) and translator Aileen Mioko (Minami Hinase, left) develop a strong personal bond while investigating an environmental calamity in a Japanese fishing village in the fact-based drama, “Minamata,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

No matter how old and detached we may become, it’s never too late to redeem ourselves, as this offering from director Andrew Levitas so effectively illustrates. This fact-based offering presents viewers with a classic “issues film” much in the same vein as “Erin Brockovich” (2000) and “Dark Waters” (2019), focusing on the personal angle of this catastrophe, showing its impact on the protagonist and victims in graphic yet heart-tugging terms. Admittedly, the tone can be somewhat heavy-handed at times, and there are some problems with an underdeveloped back story and an occasionally meandering script. But these issues are compensated for by the picture’s gorgeous cinematography, its superb Ryiuchi Sakamoto background score, and the fine lead performance of Johnny Depp, who turns in some of the best work he’s done in years. Indeed, despite the film’s tendency to preach, its message is nevertheless important – one that probably can’t be overstated in light of its impact and magnitude (and as only one example of many such ecological disasters that have occurred globally, as depicted in a montage of comparable events shown over the closing credits). This is genuinely something we must all remain diligent about, and, thankfully, that cause can be furthered by efforts like those shown here, reminding us that this planet is our home and deserves the kind of protection and respect that so many others have been willing to deliberately ignore.

Virtually everybody loves those who are able to make valiant comebacks, no matter what they may have done to put themselves in such compromised situations. It’s heroic, affirming and rejuvenating. It demonstrates an ability to fight for themselves, to bounce back when the odds are stacked against them. And it inspires us to do the same when comparable conditions arise. Indeed, we needn’t succumb to despair or a future without hope. There are always just causes worthy of being addressed – and we may just be the ones best suited to taking them on.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.